Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) Poster

I’ve never written a movie review, so I am not entirely certain of my format. I am going to work on the assumption that anyone reading this review has at least a passing familiarity with the film. I mean, it is almost 50 years old. I am also going to focus less on “what made it a great film” and more on “why I think everyone should watch it TODAY” – in the context of the modern world.  Why it is still relevant for discussions.

TL;DR: Go watch it again and try to imagine what (if anything) would change putting it into a modern context. Not enough has changed in the last 47 years to make the issues addressed in this movie “outdated” and points out a few things I think we (in the modern day) could learn from and improve.

Favorite Scene: Best firing of an employee ever. When Christina Drayton (Kathering Hepburn) fires her assistant Hillary. Seriously, you have to see this scene if nothing else! (And the generosity of what might have been 6 months to a year’s salary when she’s fired)

Stats: Total of 11 awards and 20 nominations. Box office gross ~$70 million worldwide.

Joanna (Joey) Drayton: she drives me crazy! Throughout the film she races forward with these plans and ideas without showing any clear process or thought into potential problems. She blithely ignores how her parents are reacting. She demands they act as happy as she feels without any regard to their concerns. Granted – they don’t warn Joey of the shit-storm that is about to hit that dinner. When she finally is told her response is “what a funny thing to do” – like he had bought her a pearl necklace instead of a diamond ring for engagement… just such a weird reaction in my opinion. She has strange – almost childlike reactions several times throughout the movie even though no one seems to believe she is too young to marry a significantly older man. I find her character to be the only one who feels incomplete.

Housekeeping: Yes, this is something that jumped out at me early in the movie. Mr. & Mrs. Drayton (the incomparable Spencer Tracey and Audrey Hepburn) are a newspaper editor and an art gallery director(?) in California (which even in the 60’s had a pretty high cost of living). They have at least one full-time servant (Tilly). With someone else to help “on weekdays” – so 2 servants essentially and delivery of food during the course of the movie. They are portrayed as upper middle class – but (at least in Georgia) even upper-middle class can’t keep a full-time cook! I couldn’t help but wonder how that world was possible- does Tilly make living wages? (I assume so because I can’t see the Draytons being less-than-honorable and paying her decently).

Somehow in the modern age we expect that level of cleanliness (perfect house, multi-course dinner – hell! Turtle soup!) from a working mother of three who also shuttles her kids to every soccer game, piano lesson, and debate club in the world – no help needed! That being said, the family does iron and answers the door – in other words they are very… respectful of Tilly’s work. I’ve read blogs of people who work as housekeepers (or house cleaners) where in the modern world we have such a poor attitude towards hired help. They make no money because they are “lazy” or “stupid” – not that they might appreciate doing a good job that has clear, obvious results and helps people! I have plenty of friends who enjoy cleaning. Why can’t they make decent wages doing it?

Race: I mean the film hits directly on this throughout. I just find it fascinating how many of these conversations I still see happening today – almost 50 years later!  I do find Joey to be frustratingly ignorant of the issues. She seems to think ignoring them makes them go away. Her parents are clearly allies, but they are acutely aware of the issues. Joey ignores them. It’s just like the “not all men” movement – if am not racist/sexist/classist then it just doesn’t exist in the world!

I think Spencer Tracy deserved best actor for the oh-so-obvious struggle with his own bigotry that he hadn’t even known he had. He is portrayed as being the vocal activist in his paper and then when it comes home he is hit like a ton of bricks. I think everyone in the modern world should watch this and see the racism – which exists in both families and they all struggle with – with an eye to recent events and discussions occurring. Has so much really changed in the past 40+ years? I am ashamed to say how little seems to have changed.

Class: Already having talked about the housekeeping/servant thing there is also Dr. John Prentice as well. His father was a postman. A walking-to-every-mailbox good old-fashioned mailman.  And his son went to become a world-famous, world-class doctor. Even taking out race (which adds another level of complexity to this discussion), class-movement has been tracked by so many sources as being more difficult now than it was. I am no expert, but reading articles that cite expert statisticians and sociologists… they say there is significantly less social mobility than there was 30 years ago. I went looking on fox news for “social mobility” and “class movement” and “socio-economic status” but I couldn’t find a single article on their site… I was uber-curious what the conservative side would say about it.

Growing up, my family was working to be middle class – and today I am considered barely lower middle class (because I’m technically a “homeowner” with my condo). Even if I was in a 2-income household with my boyfriend we would barely be considered middle class. And we both work hard. We are intelligent, motivated… and we don’t live in the same class as our own parents. This isn’t the post for me to in-depth discuss modern social mobility, but I found it striking in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – the difference and my own frustration that I will fight to be in the same class as my parents – much less “moving up” in the world. If you then add discussions on how much we spend on education and issues like race… I think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner could be used to discuss social mobility. It wasn’t considered totally weird to have the son of a postman become a doctor… and I’m not sure that would be true for someone graduating from college today.